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By The Numbers

EDGE By The Numbers: Finding Early Breakouts

by Matt Williams
Updated On: March 30, 2021, 9:43 am ET

Welcome to EDGE By The Numbers. A weekly column that will dig into the advanced metrics of the past week in addition to trends around major league baseball that can give you an edge in your fantasy league. Every Tuesday I will take you behind the curtain and pop the hood on the most interesting players in order to make you think and prepare for your next move.

The result should make you prepared to make waiver moves and trades before they become too expensive to execute. FAAB can get you any player you want until you no longer have any currency left. So stick with me this season and we will highlight what the numbers are showing us, and where they may lead. You will then find yourself in a position to find value while it’s still a value.

The primary goal of this series is to teach you how to be a better player evaluator.

This week I am going to introduce the series with a look at hitter trends from 2019 to 2020 along with a peek at spring training statistics that may be useful.

 

A Look at Stabilization Rates

 

As we are coming off of a shortened season, this is an important topic to discuss. What is a stabilization rate you ask? It is the minimum amount of data that a particular statistic requires in order to become accurate. In other words, until you reach a certain sample size with certain metrics, the information will remain unreliable and subject to variable change.

Some metrics stabilize faster than others. For example, we can get a fairly accurate idea of hitters' strikeout rate after just 60 plate appearances but need around double the sample size in order to judge their walk rate. If you wanted to look at a more extreme example, ground ball percentage tends to stabilize in as little as 80 balls in play for a hitter whereas their line drive will take around 600 balls in play.

It’s important to know these stabilization minimums in order to gauge how accurate the sample size you are evaluating is going to be. Below is a chart giving stabilization rates, sourced over time, for some popular statistical measurements for hitters and pitchers.

 

Stabilization Chart for Hitters and Pitchers

 

A Look at Hitter Trends from 2019 to 2020

 

Let’s take a look at some statistical gains, and losses, or the past two seasons for hitters. We are going to discuss:

 

  • Maximum Exit Velocity

 

  • Barrel Percentage

 

  • Ground Ball Percentage

 

  • Line Drive Percentage

 

  • In-Zone Contact Percentage

 

Maximum Exit Velocity

 

Maximum exit velocity is a fantastic statistic for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is an unbiased snapshot of a hitter's potential. You can either hit a ball that hard or you can’t. The second reason is that it requires a sample size of one ball in play. If player A takes 500 swings with a max exit velocity of 108 miles per hour and player B takes just five swings with a max of 112 miles power hour, we have a winner. There is no sample size required to justify stabilization.

However, the metric does not measure contact rate or barrel rate. It is just one tool available in your arsenal to evaluate players. A player can have an elite maximum exit velocity, but if they are inconsistent in their contact, it is not going to help them very often.

The statistic is far more important than average exit velocity as well. While an average can give you an idea of how consistently hard a hitter is striking the ball, it fails to communicate the manner in how the player reached that result. How many ground balls? How many line drives? This is why Juan Soto (92.1) and Josh Bell (91.9) had similar average exit velocities in 2020. If you were to look closely you would notice that this is mostly due to the fact that Soto carried an 86.3 mile per hour exit velocity on ground balls whereas Bell carried a 90.1 mark. Average statistics can be very misleading, but if you must, try to be as specific as possible. 

 

Max Exit Velocity > Fly Ball/Line Drive Exit Velocity > Average Exit Velocity

 

Let’s take a look at the leaders for maximum exit velocity in the 2020 season:

 

Max Exit Velocity Leaders 2020

 

Right away you can notice the value and flaws in the leaderboard. It displays the true power hitters in the game like Alonso, Chapman, and Ozuna, but without displaying the warts of certain players like Stanton (health) and Sano (contact). The metric purely shows raw potential, which is a great thing as long as you weigh it against the opportunity and flaws of the hitter you are evaluating.

 

Here is the max exit velocity leaderboard for spring training. See anyone interesting?

 

Max Exit Velo Spring Training

 

This would be a good opportunity to do some cross-referencing between two different metrics, a great way to perform a player evaluation. We discussed the flaws of maximum exit velocity when used on its own, but what if we combine it with barrel percentage?

Don’t get too excited though. It is late in the offseason and Opening Day is just days away, so there is unlikely to be hidden gold in this analysis so late in the game. However, you can use this same method using in-season data (or next offseason) to find breakout candidates.

Barrel percentage is, oddly enough, not a measure of how many balls all struck on the barrel of the bat. That is actually Sweet Spot% (on Baseball Savant). Barrel percentage is defined as a percentage of batted balls with the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle. To be “barreled”, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 miles per hour with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. Thereafter, every mile per hour over 98 the ball is struck, the range of launch angles expands.

 

Here is the leaderboard for the largest gains in Barrel percentage from 2019 to 2020:

 

Barrel Percentage Gains Leaderboard 2020

 

Remember, this is a chart of just hitters with the highest gain in barrel percentage, not the highest barrel percentage. Put the pitchforks away. That being said, it’s interesting to see a power hitter we already know like Matt Chapman show up on both lists. The 27-year-old third baseman has already put up a 36-bomb season in 2019, so it will be interesting to see if his barrel gains stick over an entire season in 2021.

The names that stick out in spring training are Fernando Tatis Jr. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez.

Tatis Jr is about as far for a sleeper as you can get, the kid is wide awake and going in the first round of all fantasy drafts. But after seeing a 6.3 point increase in his barrel rate last season combined with his impressive max exit velocity, we could be in for a very special season.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is always on the forefront of everyone’s minds in baseball. It’s hard not to root for someone with his charisma and he is always high in the leaderboards for maximum exit velocity. However, he does not find his way onto many barrel leaderboards due to everyone’s favorite topic, launch angle. Remember earlier when I defined the term, a barrel is a “perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle.” Vlad has mastered one of the two, and he posted a respectable 8.8 percent barrel rate last season, but until he can find a way to find a line drive rate over 20 percent the phenom’s ceiling may remain capped. To be clear though, max exit velocity measures potential, and not too many have more than Guerrero.

Teoscar Hernandez shows up on all three charts. The silver slugger was among the league leaders in maximum exit velocity for both spring training and the 2020 season while seeing one of the largest gains in barrel rate last year. Teoscar has seen his max EV jump from 108.8 to 112.1 to 115.9 over the past several seasons while seeing a spike in line-drive rate and bat control metrics. The breakout looks very legitimate, the only question is how sticky is that line drive rate? Remember the stabilization chart above?

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Let’s talk about line drive and ground ball rates.

 

Gains and Losses: Line Drive and Ground Ball Rate

 

Line Drive Percentage Gains 2020

 

Above is a chart showing the biggest line drive percentage gains last season among qualified hitters. You will notice a few familiar names from the previous sections, notably Matt Chapman and Teoscar Hernandez. A few other standouts include Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Anthony Santander, Travis d’Arnaud, and Paul Goldschmidt.

Line drives are important. If you need proof beyond the obvious, the league batted .684 last season on them compared to .239 for fly balls and just .229 on ground balls. The issue for tracking line drive percentage in-season, or in this case a short season, is that they take a very long time to stabilize (600 BIP). This is not an issue for established players, but it is an issue for tracking improvement (or decline).

Instead, try comparing the line drive gains to their ground ball rate, which stabilizes far earlier (80 BIP). This will give you a reference point that is more accurate while giving you a peek at whether or not that line rate is sustainable. 

 

Ground Ball Percentage Drop 2020

 

Well, hello Matt Chapman. Do you sense a theme here? You may also notice similar names from the line drive chart such as Anthony Santander, Jose Iglesias, and Paul DeJong. Cross-referencing data is a great way to spot “sleepers” or value in fantasy.

It is easier said than done successfully in a small sample. However, if you have a statistic like max exit velocity that requires no minimum and cross-reference it with an incomplete sample from line-drive rate (for example) it could point you in the right direction. Of course, this is speaking to early-season player evaluation. It is always best to get the desired sample size for maximum accuracy.

 

In-Zone Contact Percentage Gains

 

Contact percentage is a great metric for measuring the potential for batting average and strikeout percentage. More importantly, for our purposes, it also makes for an ideal cross-referencing statistic that have only a 100 plate appearance stabilization threshold.

I prefer to look directly at in-zone contact rate, which can also be found on FanGraphs as “Z-Contact.” This is where a batter is going to make premium contact and is therefore the best place to cross-reference hard contact metrics. Make sense? Great.

Below are the leaders for in-zone contact gains last season:

 

In-Zone Contact Percentage Gains

 

The interesting name on this list is Rowdy Tellez. Not only did he increase his in-zone contact, but he was among the league leaders in max exit velocity in both 2020 and spring training this year. This is a breakout worth banking on if he had guaranteed at-bats. If the Blue Jays first baseman ever finds them, Tellez fits the mold we are trying to make.

It is important early in the season that you remember not to overreact. While it is still ok to speculate on small sample size, you need to go about it the right way. Proven potential plus opportunity equals results. If you have a reason to believe a hitter has potential and can cross-reference that potential with tangible results and opportunity, take a shot. You may find yourself the next Teoscar Hernandez breakout on the waiver wire before the price skyrockets.

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a baseball writer/analyst for NBC Sports Edge, RotoFanatic and is the author of #2021PlayerBreakdowns on Twitter. He is the host of the Turn Two Podcast & you can follow him on Twitter @MattWi77iams.